Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, HAMNET is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.
Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.
Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.
Hamnet captivated me with its beautiful writing and vibrant setting. We are introduced to Shakespeare’s family, although Shakespeare is never actually named – he’s often referred to as just ‘the husband’, ‘the son’, ‘the tutor’ etc. I liked that he’s not the focus of the story; it keeps the novel about his family and in particular his wife Agnes.
Although this is a fictional work, as I read it I felt like I was really reading a true story. This is no doubt partly because we don’t know a lot about Shakespeare’s life, so this imagining on certain aspects is really intriguing, and because Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is so vivid and skilful.
The novel jumps around in time, so some of it is set in the ‘present day’ when Hamnet’s sister Judith falls ill – a time when the plague is rife in England – and some of it jumps back in time to learn about Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes’s, upbringing and their children’s birth.
Some of the more descriptive parts I did feel could have been shortened a little, but it still kept me wanting to read on, even when the plot was a little slower. In fact, quite a lot of this novel feels like it lacks action but that this doesn’t negatively impact the story because it’s still very captivating.
I really enjoyed the memorable chapter about how to plague first reached England’s shores, and throughout the novel I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the history of England and London during the 16th century, as Shakespeare becomes involved with playwriting. I felt such a strong sense of time and place when reading Hamnet – for me, that’s the sign of a great historical novel.
There are sad, shocking and frustrating parts, with flawed (and real-feeling) characters who together create a book that is hard to forget.